Lovedale Semillon and the emergence of a Hunter specialty

The release this week of the magnificent McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2000, reminds us that greatness is often accompanied by idiosyncrasy.

And in the case of Hunter semillon, idiosyncrasy begins with a paradox. How can a comparatively delicate wine style emerge from such a warm, humid and wet climate? Haven’t we been told for decades that elegant wines come from cool regions?

The answer appears to lie, say McWilliams, in “the humidity, afternoon cloud cover and gentle sea breezes [that] temper the summer and afford excellent ripening conditions”.

Unquestionably, something is up as warm-climate semillon tends to make clumsy wines smelling and tasting of wet hessian.

But the peculiarities of the lower Hunter allow vignerons to harvest semillon at very low sugar ripeness without suffering the green, tart, unripe flavours that generally accompany such early harvesting.

True, very young Hunter semillon has an austere acid edge, but the ‘lemongrass’ and ‘lemon’ fruit flavours underlying the acidity have a sweet, delicious core. While the bone-dry austerity of young semillon may seem at odds with prevailing Aussie wine styles, some makers, like Brokenwood and Margan have succeeded in tempering the austerity without losing the distinctive regional flavours.

Others, like McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth and Lovedale and Tyrrell Vat 1, persist with the more austere styles that age so beautifully. This style emerged close to its present from in the 1960s.

According to the late Murray Tyrrell, Ray Kidd of Lindemans put modern Hunter semillon firmly on track with the introduction of protective winemaking technology — principally through the use of temperature controlled ferments and inert gas blanketing.

Great and age worthy Hunter semillons preceded Lindeman’s initiatives – the first from the Lovedale, for example, was made in 1950 – but the introduction of protective winemaking enabled the style to flourish.

McWilliams introduced the technology to its Mount Pleasant winery in 1967 and for decades the delicate, lively and long-lived Elizabeth Riesling (as Hunter semillon was often called in those days) became one of Australia’s most popular wines.

Elizabeth’s popularity waned during the eighties and Hunter semillon, despite its extraordinary qualities, appeared to be marginalised: loved only by wine experts, aficionados and part of the Sydney market.

Whether or not there’s widespread commercial hope for the genre, it’s hard to tell. But the core of makers attending the classic style, sourcing small parcels from the Lower Hunter’s great old vineyards, appears to be growing.

And that’s a trend fanned by aficionados and leading wine shows where judges regularly reward the classic long-lived styles.

But is it a style that only the initiated can love? Definitely not. The popularity of Elizabeth in the BC era (before chardonnay) suggests otherwise. And, of course, the sheer glory of drinking a mature Tyrrell’s Vat 1 or Lovedale is the most convincing argument of all.

Given semillon’s waning popularity in the eighties and nineties and the poor returns enjoyed by most makers, we should be thankful that McWilliams persevered with the low-yielding Lovedale vineyard and the stunning wines from it, crafted since 1978 by Phil Ryan.

A wine of Lovedale Semillon’s calibre is rare: it develops slowly in bottle, gradually building richness upon richness as it unfolds over the decades from lean and lemony in youth to honeyed and toasty with age. It sits squarely in the Lower Hunter mould, yet has a unique intensity and power attributable to the drab-looking, sandy site earmarked for semillon by Maurice O’Shea half a century ago.

McWilliams Hunter Valley Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2000 $45
One year before Max Schubert created Grange Hermitage, Maurice O’Shea made the first semillon from the Lovedale vineyard – a flat, sandy and unprepossessing site, planted in 1946. Known variously, over the years, as Lovedale Riesling, Anne Riesling and, finally, Lovedale Semillon, the wine has become a long-lived benchmark of the unique, idiosyncratic Hunter style. This new release, from the very cool 2000 vintage, seems to be particularly slow maturing. Less than a year ago it showed the grassy, sauvignon-blanc-like character of the cool year. It’s now slipped into a more lemony, taut, typical and glorious Hunter semillon mode with decades of life ahead.

Copyright  © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007